Dawn of Andromeda (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £22.99
Where To Get It: Steam, Humble Store

Real Time Strategy in space has always been a tough proposition. Mainly because space is big, and the early game of any such endeavour can, done “realistically”, have all the fun of watching paint dry, while the mid to late game can be plagued with doing a thing wrong, then not realising for a good hour (or until it’s too late, whichever comes sooner.) Dawn of Andromeda, sadly, is no different in this, despite a potentially interesting main campaign.

Pictured: an interesting *description*

Let’s talk about that campaign narrative a little, because honestly, it’s a feature I see very little of in the old 4X (eXpand, eXplore, eXploit, eXterminate) genre these days, and one involving multiple alien races in a grand tapestry of war, tragedy, and shenanigans? Sign me u-

Oh. Oh wait. I can’t find that mercenary I just hired and sent to kill a bounty for my current best friends, the Sython (Who the Terran Empire totally isn’t going to go to a long, expensive war with several times over the next few millennia before somebody else screws it all up.) Wait, I found him again, and… Wait, I lost a survey ship? When did I? Oh, while I was watching this guy half a galaxy away. Meanwhile, I’m debating which of the more far flung colony worlds I should try expanding to, in the hope I can actually defend them.

Space is not only big, but also rather sparse. This is something I’m not actually that fond of being reminded of in space opera games, for some reason.

What I’m getting at here, folks, is that Dawn of Andromeda is not the friendliest of games. There are three game speeds (not counting pause), and while they’re marked “Slow”, “Normal”, and “Fast”, I have different names for them: “Can actually see a fight happening”, “Can watch bars slowly tick up”, and “The speed I go at while I’m waiting for things to happen.” Pause is pretty much my default state while I try to work out what the hell is going on with my scouts and survey ships and, in one particular case, watching a bounty slowly, but surely, escape the guy I’d just hired to take it.

Meanwhile, there’s a lot to take in, adding to the “A lot of the time you will be paused.” Understanding an alien race enough to talk to them is a research project, taking time away from your research. Adding to a world’s power requires an infrastructure investment, which will cost you some money a turn until it’s done. You have an approval rating, which will cause rebellions if it’s low, and goes up and down based on… Factors. Decent living conditions help, as does an assigned councillor who isn’t an asshole. It’s not very colour blind friendly, to the point where, zoomed in to a point where I have two ships chasing each other in my field of view, I can’t actually see the things without straining my eyes (Drag selecting will only select the ship I directly control.)

It tries to help, really it does. It has “Zoom in here” icons in the planet tables, fleet tables, anomaly tables… But the main screen is a mess. The UI isn’t the friendliest. Ships can chase each other for a long time without fights happening, and ships attacking from the front will move toward said fast ship, then tail along behind it, losing it like the other poor bastards chasing it in the first place. Providing you have the foresight (and opportunity) to pull such a maneuver off in the first place.

Gripping [YAWN] Space combat. [YAWN] Honest!

I’m sure the game has some interesting things in it. I’m sure it has something, some potential. But I’m finding frustration in even the easiest of scenarios (Where I am informed, and tentatively agree, that even finding the alien worlds may well eat up the whole 2 years allotted for “survival”), boredom from the sparse universe, and quickly realising that it amounts to “Build lots of ships, point them at whatever enemy while holding your own worlds safe”, despite its other trappings. As I am occasionally forced to say, the game resists being played.

The Mad Welshman accepts that Space is big. But surely it’s more interesting than this?

Endless Space 2 (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £34.99
Where To Get It: Steam, Humble Store

Endless Space 2 is big. I mean really big. I mean, you may think it’s a long walk down to the chemist’s, but that’s peanuts compared to Endless Space 2!

Joking reference aside, Endless Space 2 is, as far as turn based strategy where you eXpand, eXplore, eXploit and eXterminate other alien races, most often while playing an alien race yourself, actually quite good. Even if I’m somewhat salty about Amplitude following the current “stance” of “Who even plays hotseat?” (Hi! I do! And so do quite a few of my friends!)

Making this clear right now… The Sophons are totally not my… Adorkable, irresponsible, space babies. Nope.

So let’s get that out the way right now: Multiplayer is online only, none of the playing-with-yourself or risk free theorycrafting shenanigans you’d be used to in some other… Well, quite a few other strategy games, up till relatively recently. If that’s a turnoff, I understand. Let’s get on to the good stuff.

In Endless Space 2, there are eight races, and they all play somewhat differently. This has pretty much been the charm of Amplitude games since the studio arose in 2011, and it’s a skill they’ve been steadily honing through their company life. The Unfallen, for example, with their “branch” system of colonising, are extremely interesting. They can only colonise in lines from the homeworld, and instead of sending a ship full of people, they send a ship that lures space-vines from the homeworld, entangling a system, and then they send the first colonists through the space-vines. On the upside, this means they can stretch out a web of influence, and colonise systems quickly once they have the technology to actually live on the bloody things. On the downside, if somebody happens to conquer a system along that branch, whether there were nice treemen living there or not, everything further down the branch is lost, and, unlike every other faction except the Vodyani, if you lose your homeworld, that’s it. Game over. Caput.

But interest comes in many flavours. A returning faction from the first game, the Sophons, are my dear little science babies, not because they have a different colonisation method, or because they’re game breaking, but because they have accepted that Science is a verb, a noun, a preposition, and… Look, they really like science… Often to their own detriment. And I love them for it, which leads nicely into the narrative end of things.

And it definitely isn’t because they acknowledge as objective fact that Science is a Verb.

Endless Space 2 has race specific questlines. The Sophons, for example, have found themselves in the unenviable position of having created the universe’s first (known) Super-AI, called ENFER, have plugged it into everything they can, and now have to answer a very difficult question: How the heck do we keep it happy? Everybody has their thing, and nobody is very nice. The United Empire, under very Stalinist propaganda, are influence wielding warmongers, the Riftborn just want to live, their perfect, ordered universe having been destroyed by our chaotic, quantum-fuckery filled one (Which, if you think about it, is very much Cosmic Horror), the Horatio (A race of clones) want to make things perfect (IE – All Horatio, because Horatio is perfection), the Cravers are perfectly happy being hungry murderbugs designed to devour entire planets (or are they?) , and…

…Look, there’s a lot of stories here. Not just the eight racial stories, but the stories of individual heroes, the universe (The fallout of a war between two ideologically opposed Super Races who appear to have killed each other, but may not actually be dead, is one familiar to science fiction fans, but is excellently implied), and even of specific worlds, come together in a well written and engaging universe that’s well worth looking at on its own. The UI is mostly friendly and clear (The research “circle” is a little confusing at first, as is how to get to ground force management), the ships have real polish and difference to them, and the music… Electronic heaven, whether its somewhat ambient, as in the title screen, or the more “Ohcrap, things are happening” of the combat tuneage.

Both ground and space combat, for returning Endless players, has had some improvement, with extra choices and tactics at the beginning, but remains “You make choices about range and tactics, then watch the pretty lights and explosions.” Or don’t.

Essentially, if you want to eXplore space, eXpand into new worlds, and eXploit and eXterminate new civilisations, Endless Space 2 is another good one to go for. Like Master of Orion 2016, its difficulty is fairly adjustable, and, as noted, my main bitch with the game is the same one I have with this genre all over in recent years… I just want to have a chill time smashing spaceships and aliens together, by myself, and nobody’s letting me.

The Mad Welshman can’t actually pick a favourite faction. They’re all moustache twirley in their own way, and he loves them all equal- AHAHA SCIENCE FOR THE WIN, YOU CAN’T OUTFIGHT ME IF I OUT-TECH YOU EVERYWHERE!

Endless Space 2 (Early Access Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £26.24 standard, £33.73 Digital Deluxe
Where To Get It: Steam

Since the inception of Amplitude in 2011 (An event I remember with some small fondness), the studio have experimented with 4X genre constraints with their Endless series of games (With a little side trip into the roguelike/tower defense genre with Dungeons of the Endless.) They’re an interesting studio, with an interesting model, and, as a result, their games are often interesting. Not always standing the test of time, but often putting new ideas into the game development community.

Political Parties, new to Endless Space 2!

Endless Space 2, so far, is shaping up to be no different in that respect. As such, it’s already a somewhat different beast to the original Endless Space, taking what they’ve learned from Endless Legend to fiddle with the space 4X formula. And the five factions currently available, a mix of the rejiggered old, and completely new, demonstrates this quite aptly.

It also demonstrates that sometimes I don’t get on with aspects of the experimentation, as the first new faction, the Vodyani, demonstrates.

In the Endless Universe (Now rebooted, in a sense, for Endless Space 2), the Vodyani are one half of the uplift philosophies of the two “Endless” precursor alien groups that have left their mark on the universe, the Virtual. Virtual beings seemingly made of flame, the Vodyani are slow burners on the game front, due to their core mechanic: Both population growth and colonisation are tied to Essence, which can either be extracted from Dust (Tying up your production queue) or from other life forms (Tying up your military and souring diplomacy pretty much everywhere they go.) They can move from system to system with their Arks (Heavily armed and armoured space Titans), and it’s only when they attach themselves to a world that they colonise it. Or, you can go with their slow as molasses population growth

Dun Dundrrrun dun du-du-du-dun DAA DAA DAA DA DA-DAAAA DA DA-DAAAA!

But when they do, unlike other races, each counter of population applies to each planet they can colonise. They’re this strange mix of strong and fragile, as I discovered when I found the Ark… Couldn’t defend against a ground invasion. Cue one lost game. One of many.

I’ve had a much better time, by contrast, with the slightly more conventional factions: The United Empire, The Sophons, and the Lumeris (I’ve never been good at playing Cravers, but they seem largely unchanged from ES1, in the sense that being penned in is the worst thing that can happen to them, and conquest is the major victory type.) Each one has a different focus (Industry with the UE, Science with the Sophons, and Dust with the Lumeris), and each faction in general has something to bring to the table. For example, the Lumeris buy their colonies, and can trade them if they so desire, while the Sophons research faster if nobody else has the tech yet, allowing their research to… Far, far outpace their industry, if you’re not careful. The main problems right now (I’m almost certain this is subject to change) is that the AI is a little timid once you’ve built up enough force, and doesn’t seem to play the Rock-Paper-Scissors game with beam, energy, and missile weapons so well… Although they’ll still kick your ass on a ground assault without the numbers on your side.

The United Empire: Now much more clearly Not Good People.

It’s entertaining, there’s no doubt about that, as the questline feature from Endless Legend is applied adroitly to each faction (For example, the UE is about the paranoid emperor trying to find and quash dissent), and the new political system, if your economy goes well, can allow for some drastic shifts in focus, although I often find, due to my playstyle and the fact that war empowers them, that the Militarist party is most often in power regardless of faction, although minor races having their own political affiliation helps. The UI is simple and clean, the battle mode has some clarifications and upgrades (Although not full ship control, which I know turns some folks off) …

… But right now, even though I’m finding it fun a fair amount of the time, it’s also oddly frustrating in portions. When a game goes badly, it goes horrifically, depressingly wrong, but when it goes well? I find myself running out of things to do, to build, and so, by about turn 100 on a good game, I’m finding myself hitting the End Turn button twice, once to try, and once to confirm that yes, I’m not building anything in those five or so core systems because my industry has outpaced my research, or there’s nothing that I particularly need at this point. Your mileage, obviously, may vary there. Something that may get fixed before release is that the battles seem to calculate slower as the game goes on, and this can become a bit annoying, and, as the final screenshot shows, some of the faction colours may be a problem for colourblind folks to read.

Still, the writing of the game so far is pleasant, if somewhat stereotypical in places (Space Shark Mafia are quite literally a Mafia, Crime Families and all, for example), the art and ship designs are gorgeous, the music is calming for the most part, and the rebooted universe of the Endless still, somehow, feels fresh.

I just wish I really understood how the Vodyani played, even if I love Sciencing the crap out of people as the Sophons.

The Sophons know, like all good space-dorks, that Science Is A Verb. 8D

The Mad Welshman fully understands the Sophons’ joy. I mean, there’s nothing quite like writing your name on the moon with a giant death laser, is there?

Master of Orion: Conquer The Stars (Review)

Source: Early Access Purchase
Price: £22.99 (£29.99 for extra lovely stuff, including the first three Master of Orion games, an art book, and the TERRAN KHANATE [Evil Humans])
Where To Get It: Steam, GOG

I’m going to start this review with what will most likely be an unpopular opinion about the older Master of Orion games: They’re dated. Yes, you heard me, I, a fellow 4X player, just told you he thinks one of many games that laid the groundwork for the space 4X genre is dated. Maybe not as good as you remember it. Still good. Still one of the games that laid the groundwork. And I hold this opinion for two reasons.

It isn't *too* likely you'll have this many ships in one fight. But god-damn, it makes for a lovely intro!

It isn’t *too* likely you’ll have this many ships in one fight. But god-damn, it makes for a lovely intro!

Firstly, I’ve played enough of it, and recently enough, to know. Secondly, because comparisons are inevitable, and it seems some comparisons are being played up… And others down. Let’s start with what seems to be played down. Let’s start with how much attention has been paid to the feel of how grand Space Opera should be, and how it tries very hard to be more accessible this time around.

Just a brief look at the IMDB page for this game leaves no doubt that vocal talent was a focus of the game. Michael Dorn narrates, leaders and advisors alike are played by such luminaries as John Kassir (The Cryptkeeper), John De Lancie (Q, among many others), Mark Hamill (Do I even need to say?), Nika Futterman (Asaji Ventress, among others), Kari Wahlgren (The english voice of the Fate series’ Saber), Kat Cressida (Dee Dee from Dexter’s Lab), and Sumalee Montano (Arcee [Transformers] and Katana [Beware The Batman], among other voice roles), and each one seems to be giving their all. Similarly, the music and art direction (David Govett on music, and a talented art team including Bill Willingham… Yes, Fables Bill Willingham) show a deep love of the genre, with gorgeous landscapes, solid, characterful animations, and music that, my first time hearing it, I’m not ashamed to say I happy-cried. So the game is undeniably beautiful, both in sound and visuals. The UI, similarly, is well designed, simple, mostly self explanatory, with few interactions required to get to any one feature, only rare occasions where a tooltip will obscure a thing, and, of course, visual consistency. Similarly, there’s a lot of good writing in there, showing each race both as it is seen, and as it sees itself.

GNN... Bringing you the clickbait for the New Diaspora!

GNN… Bringing you the clickbait for the New Diaspora!

Accessibility wise, on top of the UI, everything is visually distinct, and the game is highly customisable in terms of difficulty and length. Don’t want to spend 10 hours on a game? You can up the tempo. Finding a full medium galaxy too tense in the early game? Knock down the number of opponents, make the galaxy bigger, tone down the difficulty… The choices are there, and they definitely have an effect. Myself, I don’t tend to do well in a crowded universe, so I knock the opponents down to 3 rather than 5, although I tend to prefer a medium universe. As in previous Master of Orion games, you can also create your own race, in much the same fashion as Master of Orion 2. And the tooltips are genuinely helpful, and the advisor interruptions are by no means unwelcome in the clear information they give. These are two factors that open this game up to newer players, and I think that should quite rightly be praised.

Now… I mentioned some things have been played up, and all of them have the same, dubious core idea: That Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars (To use its full title for the first time this review… Most folks I know refer to it as MoO2016) is somehow more simplistic or easier than the older games. As someone who has now, since release, been bumrushed several times by races absolutely itching for space, who have obviously been concentrating on the shipbuilding end of things (That, or redlining their taxes), I would quite heartily disagree. In MoO2, I could quite happily spend 60 turns, or even 100, just slowly building up, sometimes without meeting anybody at all. In a Medium galaxy, populated by 5 other races, on Normal difficulty? The early game gets surprisingly tense, and I’ve often had to shift gears quite quickly. Knock the players down a bit, and it calms down a bit. Knock the difficulty down a notch, and similarly, it calms down a notch. As to simplicity? It’s a somewhat refined version of MoO2’s rules. Not a huge amount of changes, not a huge amount of additions or subtractions. Mostly, it’s been refinements, and y’know what? I’m okay with that.

An early game buildup...

An early game buildup…

Finally, there’s the combat system. I don’t mind it either way, as it retains elements of the older, turn based system that MoOs 1 and 2 had (Complete with ship customisation elements), and the rock-paper-scissors of Energy/Missile/Mass Drivers remains, but with the real time strategy elements allowing skillful micro to outplay a superior enemy, or, if you so choose, being able to sit back and watch the combat resolve itself automatically… But more cinematically than just hitting Auto-Resolve itself.

Now… Overall, I’ve been positive, and if you’ve read my work before, you’d know I will always try and balance things out, even if I’m not always successful in doing so. Master of Orion is not without its problems. For example, selection of craft can get finicky at times, as it sometimes seems to want to drag craft as an interaction rather than the old “click select, click [if you want to select a specific ship], click move.” The AI’s primary interaction before you establish embassies is to be extremely aggressive toward everyone else, and production, in Classic pacing, feels a bit of a slog. I’m not going to accuse the AI of cheating with its builds, but I am going to say that their emphasis mostly appears to be on the Conquer side of the Paths to Victory rather than others, especially in the early game. As with many 4X games, once you get to the end game, you will probably be able to pick and choose which of the six paths to victory you go for, rather than having to choose. Those are a select few criticisms.

Overall, though, MoO2016 seems a good introduction to the Space 4X genre, and a well crafted one in the artistic sense to boot. Also, I can confirm that the art book expands a little on the lore of the galaxy, and has a fair amount of cool concept art. 😉

...Followed by an early game beatdown from some extremely irascible Russian Space Bears. I will never mock the Bulrathi again.

…Followed by an early game beatdown from some extremely irascible Russian Space Bears. I will never mock the Bulrathi again.

The Mad Welshman is now idly wondering whether anyone can do a similarly good job with other strategic games set in space such as Ascendancy, Millennium, or, just maybe, Emperor of the Fading Suns.

Master of Orion (Early Access Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £29.99
Where To Get It: Steam (NB – Comes with the original 3 Master of Orion games)

This isn’t really going to be an article reviewing how much game there is. It’s pretty obvious, at this point, that while the game is playable, and victories can be achieved, it’s incomplete, and there is more to come, including balancing of units and the like. This is about another important question: Do NGD and Wargaming “get” Space Opera?

The planetary environments, while the same canned anims that you'd see in the original MoO, are gorgeous.

The planetary environments, while the same canned anims that you’d see in the original MoO, are gorgeous.

Judging by the tears leaking down my face from the opening theme, with its violins, choirs, harps, and wind instruments? It’s a good starting sign. And the game is already showing heaps of promise. Let’s start with the races. So far, every race is presented fairly neutrally. Nobody is unequivocally a “good” or “bad” race, from the proud Alkari, to… Okay, maybe the Mrrshan are a little dickish, what with the “They’ll sometimes even attack their allies for the fun of it.” For those who don’t know Master of Orion’s universe (First seen in 1996 with the titular game by Microprose), there are 10 races, 6 of which are available at this point in the Early Access: The psychic, four armed scientists, the Psilons; The preening birdfolk with elite piloting skills, the Alkari; The tough Space Bears of Nature, the Bulrathi; The ruthless matriarchal catfolk with a penchant for ground combat, the Mrrshan; the reptilian, quickly colonising Sakkra Brood… Oh, and Humans, who have, in Space Opera tradition, formed a Grand Republic. Somehow.

Well, that’s why they call it Space Opera, really… Grandiose in view, and not a little implausible at times. Nonetheless, aurally, it’s an almost constant, and pleasant assault on the senses, from the sweeping orchestral score that quickens the blood and sets the mood well, from combat to colonisation, to the smooth tones of the voice actors and actresses that make the star studded cast. Most are immediately recognisable, such as Michael Dorn (Narrator), John De Lancie (President of the Republic), and Kat Cressida (Mrrshan Empress), while others take a little more work to identify, but no less enjoyment, such as Nika Futterman (Mrrshan Advisor, and, once they’re in the game, Darlok Advisor), John Kassir (The Alkari Advisor, whose squawks, shrieks, and excitement slay me with laughter.) Visually, similarly, it’s all gloss, from the tight UI design (Minimal, but stylistically fitting) to the ships (Each having their own character, and some customisation options, such as 2 model styles per class, and several preset colour schemes.)

The last thing a Space Pirate is going to see in the Early Game: The Missile Lock Indicator.

The last thing a Space Pirate is going to see in the Early Game: The Missile Lock Indicator.

It’s pretty clear it’s had a lot of cash spent on it. So how does it play? Well, it would be a disservice to say it plays exactly like the original Master of Orion, because there are definitely refinements, but many of these are subtle at the present time, and I don’t think we’ll see a whole lot of rocking the boat in terms of gameplay. It is, nonetheless, its own entity, with some changes to areas such as research (No more does every tech lock you out of something, for example), tactical combat (Which is now real time, although still, as far as I can tell, on a level plane. Also, you can get a rough estimate of how your chances are against a fleet or space creature), and pollution (Which, instead of being a Fact of Life, can now be reduced via the build menu.) There is also, because the game is still in development, a bunch of missing features (Such as Tech victories, Economic victories, four races, custom races, and miscellaneous bits and bobs like a full Volcanic Planet description) and the odd typo, but right now? The game is definitely playable, and, if you liked, say, Master of Orion 2, it’s an enjoyable play.

That isn’t to say there aren’t some things that don’t feel a little off to me. It’s important right now, for example, to make sure you hit the “Randomise seed” button for your galactic maps, unless you feel like playing the same map over and over again, some voice clips fail to play at times, and, to be brutally honest, I’m not overly fond of the Mrrshan, although their portrayal is consistent, and makes sense. No, I’m not particularly offended by Mrrshan Sideboob. I’m more annoyed that everyone else seems to be characterised more neutrally, including the Alkari, who are, as far as I recall, bigger assholes as a race. Psilons? Yeah, go out and study things! Bulrathi? Let’s Protect Nature (Any Way We Can)! Sakkra? We’re lookin’ out for our kids! Mrrshan? Yeaaahhhh, more shit to fight, fuck yes! If we don’t find anyone else, we’ll smack our allies around for the fun of it, yeaaaaahhh!

The Mrrshan have pretty ships, but are the least pretty faction, tonally.

The Mrrshan have pretty ships, but are the least pretty faction, tonally.

However, aside from these few hiccups (One of which may well just be me), it’s early days yet, and to see polish and promise this early on makes me feel fairly confident that, even if Master of Orion doesn’t break new ground, it’s already got character, it’s got atmosphere, and if it continues to improve and refine, it’s going to do well.

The Mad Welshman grinned as he stared at the holovisor. GNN had voted him “Most Dashing Tyrant” for the second year running, and… The proximity alarms blared as he scrambled to the console. “Oh no… ALKARI!”